Hodges v. Rodriguez

Decision Date10 August 1994
Citation435 Pa.Super. 360,645 A.2d 1340
PartiesWillie M. HODGES, Appellee, v. Juan A. RODRIGUEZ, Pennsylvania Financial Responsibility Assigned Claims Plan and Constitution State Service Company. Appeal of PENNSYLVANIA FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY ASSIGNED CLAIMS PLAN and Constitution State Service Company, Appellants. Willie M. HODGES, Appellee, v. Juan A. RODRIGUEZ, Pennsylvania Financial Responsibility Assigned Claims Plan and Constitution State Service Company, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court

Dianne A. Dichter, Philadelphia, for Pa. Financial Responsibility Assigned Claims Plan.

Martin Stanshine, Philadelphia, for Willie M. Hodges.

Before KELLY, POPOVICH and HESTER, JJ.

KELLY, Judge:

In this appeal, we must determine whether 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1752 barred recovery of uninsured motorist benefits by a person who denied ownership of an inoperable, uninsured vehicle which nonetheless remained registered in that person's name in Pennsylvania at the time of the accident from which the benefits claim arose. In addition, we are asked to decide whether a person who is eligible to receive uninsured motorist benefits is also entitled to Pa.R.Civ.P. 238 delay damages based upon an evaluation of full compensatory damages. We hold that the trial court properly granted Willie M. Hodges statutory recovery against appellants, Pennsylvania Financial Responsibility Assigned Claims Plan (Assigned Claims Plan) and Constitution State Service Company; and that it properly denied cross-appellant, Mr. Hodges, recovery of Rule 238 delay damages. Thus, we affirm the trial court's order entering judgment in this matter.

The relevant facts and procedural history of this appeal and cross-appeal are as follows. On the evening of May 29, 1989, pedestrian Hodges was crossing Broad Street by Pike Street in North Philadelphia when he was struck by an uninsured motor vehicle. 1 As a result of this accident, Mr. Hodges sustained severe injuries to his head and to his left leg. Because Mr. Hodges was hit by an uninsured vehicle, he applied to the Assigned Claims Plan for medical and uninsured motorist benefits under 75 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1751-1757. The Assigned Claims Plan obtained records from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicating that Mr. Hodges was the owner of a motor vehicle registered in his name at the time of the accident for which he seeks benefits. Mr. Hodges admitted that he had once owned the vehicle registered in his name, but that approximately three (3) months prior to the May, 1989 accident, his vehicle was destroyed in another accident. The day after that first accident, according to Mr. Hodges, he sold the vehicle for junk to a man who towed the vehicle to a shop. Mr. Hodges then dropped the insurance coverage on that vehicle. The Assigned Claims Plan denied Mr. Hodges' claim because it determined that Mr. Hodges had not met the eligibility requirements of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1701et seq.

Mr. Hodges filed a complaint against Juan A. Rodriguez and the Assigned Claims Plan on October 31, 1990. The Assigned Claims Plan filed preliminary objections, and the trial court issued an order dated January 4, 1991, striking with prejudice those portions of Mr. Hodges' complaint which demanded interest, attorney's fees, and costs. An arbitration hearing held on August 27, 1992, resulted in a verdict in favor of Mr. Hodges for the statutory recovery of $15,000.00 in benefits payable by the Assigned Claims Plan. The Assigned Claims Plan filed an appeal. Prior to trial, Mr. Hodges requested that, if the court found in his favor, (1) it render a verdict for the full compensatory damages due him, (2) mold that award to the statutory limit, and (3) assess delay damages upon the full compensatory damages amount. A non-jury trial was held before the Honorable G. Craig Lord on December 18, 1992. On December 21, 1992, the trial court entered a verdict in favor of Mr. Hodges, finding that he was eligible for uninsured motorist benefits under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1752 and entitled to recover the statutory limit of $15,000.00 under §§ 1753 and 1754 from the Assigned Claims Plan. On January 4, 1993, the Assigned Claims Plan filed a motion for post-trial relief. On January 8, 1993, Mr. Hodges filed a petition for delay damages under Pa.R.Civ.P. 238. Mr. Hodges filed a cross-motion for post-trial relief on January 15, 1993. The Assigned Claims Plan filed its reply to Mr. Hodges' petition for delay damages on January 21, 1993. The trial court denied Mr. Hodges' petition for delay damages on April 14, 1993. Mr. Hodges filed an amended cross-motion for post-trial relief on April 23, 1993, adding his request for delay damages based on a full compensatory damage award. The trial court filed its memorandum opinion and order on August 3, 1993, denying all post-verdict motions of both parties. This timely appeal and cross-appeal followed.

On appeal, the Assigned Claims Plan raises the following issues for our review:

I. WHETHER THE PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE WAS THE OWNER OF A CURRENTLY REGISTERED AUTOMOBILE AT THE TIME OF THE ACCIDENT?

II. WHETHER THE PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE WAS AN ELIGIBLE CLAIMANT FOR BENEFITS FROM THE ASSIGNED CLAIMS PLAN AT THE TIME OF THE ACCIDENT?

The Assigned Claims Plan's Brief at 2.

Because the analysis of both issues involves a determination of Mr. Hodges' eligibility for benefits, we will address the issues together. Initially, we note that the Superior Court's scope of review is limited when examining the decision of a trial court sitting as fact finder. For our purposes, the findings of a trial court sitting without a jury have the same force and effect on appeal as a jury's verdict. Rizzo v. Haines, 520 Pa. 484, 555 A.2d 58 (1989); Piccinini v. Teachers Protective Mutual Life Insurance Co., 316 Pa.Super. 519, 463 A.2d 1017 (1983); Slaseman v. Myers, 309 Pa.Super. 537, 455 A.2d 1213 (1983). We will reverse the trial court only if its findings are predicated upon an error of law or are unsupported by competent evidence in the record. Id. On review, it is not within our province to find facts or to substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. Rizzo v. Haines, supra. Moreover, the trial court is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence that is presented, to make all credibility determinations, and to resolve any conflicts in the evidence. Gemini Equipment v. Pennsy Supply, 407 Pa.Super. 404, 411, 595 A.2d 1211, 1214 (1991) (citations omitted). In light of this limited scope of review, we now turn to the Assigned Claims Plan's assertions.

The Assigned Claims Plan argues that Mr. Hodges is ineligible to receive benefits under Section 1752 of the MVFRL because he was the owner of a currently registered motor vehicle at the time of the accident for which he now seeks recovery. In order to decide this issue, we must look to the relevant part of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1752 which provides:

(a) General rule.--A person is eligible to recover benefits from the Assigned Claims Plan if the person meets the following requirements:

* * * * * *

(3) Is not an owner of a motor vehicle required to be registered under Chapter 13 (relating to registration of vehicles).

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1752(a)(3). 2 Therefore, Mr. Hodges would be eligible for benefits if he could demonstrate that he did not own a motor vehicle that was required to be registered. 3 See Winkelman v. PFRACP, 418 Pa.Super. 439, 445, 614 A.2d 717, 720 (1992).

At trial, the Assigned Claims Plan established that Mr. Hodges was the title owner of a 1975 Chevrolet registered in his name at the time of the accident for which he seeks benefits. N.T. 12/18/92 at 39-40. Mr. Hodges testified that he had hit a pole while driving the Chevrolet, approximately three (3) months before the May, 1989 accident, rendering the vehicle inoperable. Mr. Hodges testified that the following day he sold the Chevrolet for one hundred dollars ($100.00) to a man named Louis who then had the Chevrolet towed from the accident scene to a shop to use for junk. Mr. Hodges conceded that he did not get a junk title for the Chevrolet, nor did he keep insurance on the vehicle after he had sold it. N.T. 12/18/92 at 25-28.

Relying on Darby v. Daniels, 423 Pa.Super. 100, 620 A.2d 519 (1993), 4 the trial court found that Mr. Hodges' Chevrolet was no longer a "motor vehicle" as defined by 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 102 of the Motor Vehicle Code because it had been destroyed in the earlier accident. Furthermore, the trial court found that Mr. Hodges was no longer the "owner of a motor vehicle required to be registered" because he had sold the Chevrolet for junk value.

The Assigned Claims Plan asserts that Mr. Hodges cannot be allowed to recover because Mr. Hodges did not provide documentary evidence or independent testimony to support his contentions. We cannot agree.

[O]ur scope of review on a weight of the evidence claim is [also] very limited. We will respect the trial court's findings with regard to credibility and weight of the evidence unless it can be shown that the [trial] court's determination was manifestly erroneous, arbitrary and capricious or flagrantly contrary to the evidence. The traditional standard for a weight of the evidence inquiry is whether the verdict is so contrary to the evidence as to shock one's sense of justice.

Gemini Equipment v. Pennsy Supply, supra at 413, 595 A.2d at 1215 (citations omitted).

Instantly, the trial court found Mr. Hodges' testimony regarding the vehicle to be totally credible. Trial Court Opinion filed 8/3/93 at 3. We will not disturb this credibility determination on appeal.

The Assigned Claims Plan cites Kresge v. Keystone Ins. Co., 389 Pa.Super. 548, 567 A.2d 739 (1989) and Allen v. Erie Ins. Co., 369 Pa.Super. 6, 534 A.2d 839 (1987) in support of its argument that this Court does not recognize an exception to the MVFRL for "inoperable," uninsured, but currently...

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